On Doula Sisterhood
A brief historic overview: In the early 1970s, feminist movement was picking up speed and fervor in the United States. During this time, women and some men organized in one another’s homes, often grouping together across lines of class, race, sexuality, and gender to share their experiences and confront their own conditioning to sexist thinking and behavior. These meetings were called consciousness-raising sessions, as those involved not only broadened their understanding of patriarchy, but were actively working to understand issues of intersectionality amongst themselves. They had a saying, “Sisterhood is powerful.” Sisterhood was built with deliberate work to understand not only the needs and challenges of women in similar situations to themselves, but the needs and challenges of women who traversed all walks of life.
Fast forward to today: Sisterhood in the public domain is a little scattered. The word might make you think of sorority sisters, or nuns, or you might hear it casually used amongst friends or people of similar backgrounds. But if you are a doula, you probably hear a lot more sisterhood talk than the average person.
In the doula community, the term “sisterhood” is often spoken in close proximity to the word “free,” “low cost,” or even “sliding scale” in regard to our services. It is presented as a bond between us and all pregnant people that requires us to give our time, skill, energy and effort for little to nothing in return. The thought of freely giving this way can sound really nice. It might speak to a sense of connection with others you strive for, and it surely sounds like the epitome of kindness, or “heart work.” You might hear other doulas, even firmly established and seasoned doulas, say that this is exemplary practice, because surely all birthing people deserve a doula. There is a repeatedly occurring suggestion that it is our responsibility to make our services accessible to everyone, in a time when no one who works a full time, minimum-wage job in the U.S. can afford a one-bedroom apartment. There is often significant pushback when a doula does not integrate the suggestion into her practice. This doula may be accused of being selfish, or of not being in this work for the right reasons.
Lots of doulas would love to work for every single person who would like professional support at their birth. Often, however, this isn’t a realistic option. Many doulas can’t do this because it would require them to charge less than a living wage and in many cases, nothing at all. If doulas consistently attend births at their own fiscal and timely expense, chances are they will burn out. They will eventually have to turn to something else that will feed them and their families. If a doula is under-supported herself or himself, how are we to expect them to support their clients? Should we be questioning the notion that families’ alleged needs for a luxury service trumps the real needs of working doulas to feed themselves and their babies? I think so. Is it the responsibility of the doula community to make up for this fiscal trend paired with the current state of our maternity care system by providing low cost or free services at our own expense? No.
And yet, there is pressure to give away, and ultimately treat our skills and services as a hobby rather than a profession. Why do so many people in our community pressure fellow doulas into this pattern that is unsustainable? There is rarely such an expectation for other career paths. The expectation is only half appropriate (and that’s being generous) when placed on doulas who are completely supported by another member of their family, or who are perhaps retired and willing to dedicate all the work without the pay. Yet, with so many doing this, the underlying expectation is there that all doulas have to or should do this. During a time when working mothers make up 40% of the nation’s breadwinners, to project this expectation onto others is deplorably short-sighted. It’s not sisterly.
This brings us to another issue: though many doulas are women, a growing number of men are joining our ranks, and this should be celebrated. Contrary to popular belief, men are equally capable as women to perform these roles well. Would there have been the expectation of free work had the role of doula been spearheaded mostly by men? That’s another conversation.
Sisterhood by its truthful definition and context is still powerful, and should be given much more thought and respect before being used. It cannot be cited as a reason to ask hard-working people with a valuable skill to volunteer their time in the name of empowering pregnant people. Pregnant women and individuals are not empowered by others stepping in to save them or advocate for them. And the doulas who provide these services are not empowered by a rulebook that tells them their time isn’t worth fair pay. But many- by necessity- are not complying with old rules. It doesn’t mean we are cold or lacking in compassion, or that we don’t actively concern ourselves with everyone having what they need in our communities. We believe doulas and other professionals who support and nurture aren’t obligated to work for little to nothing in order to do good work, or even give back.
Join us! We want us all to make it, and more.